Nearly all of the men in the novel fail to provide sufficiently for the women in their lives. Reb Smolinsky denies his family sufficient finances and wisdom, refusing to contribute any money to the household and either giving away or making foolish choices with the money his children bring in. According to Jewish faith, only men are allowed to study the Torah. Women are destined only to ease the lives of the men in their families, keeping them fed and clothed so they need to do nothing more than focus on the holy word. This service should be a woman’s highest aspiration, because the Torah teaches that it is only through a man that a woman can enter heaven. The men in a woman’s life define her very existence. The title of the novel, Bread Givers, refers to the inadequacy of the men in the Smolinsky women’s lives: though the women refer to men as “bread givers,” they themselves must do the largest share of the providing.
Reb Smolinsky’s wisdom also fails his daughters in another way, as his authority to choose their husbands traps his three oldest into unhappy and sometimes abusive marriages. Mashah’s husband fails her and his children in every way possible, denying them basic necessities while he can afford to eat out and buy himself fancy new clothing. Though Fania’s husband keeps her well fed and draped in fancy clothing, he holds so much back from her emotionally that she feels more alone with him than she did when she was single. Sara’s teachers at the college fail her academically, not willing to take any extra time to help her satisfy her voracious need for knowledge. None of these men give the women in the novel what they need to survive, leaving them either to perish or, as Sara did, to learn how to fulfill their own needs.
Bread Givers is full of men and even women oppressing other women, so much so that many women consider oppression an acceptable way of life. Reb Smolinsky constantly berates his far-wiser wife for attempting to make decisions and demands all of his daughters’ wages for his own use. He denies his older daughters a chance at happiness, pushing their sweethearts away because he resents not having chosen them himself. Mashah’s husband emotionally abuses her and doesn’t allow her to defend herself or her children against his injustice. Max Goldstein oppresses Sara in a more subtle manner, constantly attempting to deny her the right to have her own thoughts and opinions. Women even oppress other women. One refuses to rent Sara a single room because of her gender, and the female servers at the cafeteria consider her less worthy of meat than the man standing behind her in line. Sara must fight against this oppression nearly every moment of her life, which emphasizes her struggle to gain acceptance on the strength of her own identity.
At several points in Bread Givers, people express a desire to get out and enjoy life, though none of them ever seem able to fulfill that wish. After Bessie meets Berel, she tells her mother that they should save less and enjoy life more—but her ability to enjoy life is crushed when Berel leaves. Sara complains that instead of geometry she wants to learn subjects that will help her truly live her life, but she is taunted for that desire for the rest of her time in school. Fania berates Sara for studying by telling her she should get out and enjoy life, but Fania herself has admitted on several occasions that her own life gives her no pleasure at all. Sara nearly rejects her studying for Max’s sake because he makes her feel more fun and full of life, but she later discovers that Max’s pleasure is hollow and not dependent on any interest in Sara herself. The characters’ desire to live life is truly a desire to escape into a new life, a process that takes far more work than a simple wish.